A fatwa of one's own

By Mark Steyn, National Post, Canada, Thursday, December 05, 2002

To be honest, I felt mildly envious when I saw Zulf M. Khalfan's letter on Tuesday. Mr. Khalfan, of Nepean, Ontario, was responding to David Frum's defence of Isioma Daniel, the Nigerian journalist now in hiding after remarking that the Prophet Muhammad would have been happy to take the winner of Miss World for his wife. Mr. Khalfan replied that, as Muhammad's wives are accorded "an honourable status," it was obviously grossly objectionable to suggest that a woman who "exposed herself" -- by wearing make-up and a bikini -- would be an appropriate spouse for the Prophet.

Fair comment. But then: "Mr. Frum has to understand that it is Muslims who determine what is objectionable to their religion, not he dictating it to them," added Mr. Khalfan. "And since he cites Salman Rushdie, he should know by now the fatal consequences resulting from ignoring this fact."

Can you believe it? For most of the last 15 months, while I've been here playing the National Post's Mister Islamophobe, that milquetoast Frum has been sitting in the White House, presumably cranking out all the President's dopey "Islam is peace" speeches. He's back in the Post for barely a fortnight and already he's got his own fatwa? Thanks a bunch, you ungrateful Nepean Islamists! Where did I go right?

Well, Mr. Khalfan has now "clarified" his original letter on the page opposite. He doesn't want to kill David Frum. He just wants David to be aware of how easy it is to provoke other people into killing him.

When Isioma Daniel remarked that Muhammad would have taken Miss World as his wife, she was correct to the extent that the Prophet seems to have had an eye for the ladies. But that wasn't really her point. Her point was more basic, and it was this: Hey, lighten up, Muslims! Muslims responded by going nuts, rampaging through the streets, pulling Christian women and children from cars and burning them to the cheers of the mob. By the end of it all, the dead numbered 500. So no, Miss Daniel, Muslims won't lighten up, but they'll light you up, if they ever catch up with you. (I'm in favour of Izzy offering the poor gal a job at the Post, by the way.)

These days, we're all citing Salman Rushdie but at the time -- February 14th 1989 -- most of us didn't appreciate the significance of the event. It marked the first time the Ayatollah Khomeini had claimed explicitly extra-territorial authority. Why he chose an obscure and for most of us unreadable English novel for his expeditionary foray is unclear, but the results must have heartened him tremendously.

Rushdie had not set out to offend Muslims: None of the London reviewers found anything controversial in the book. When British Muslims and their co-religionists around the world burnt copies of The Satanic Verses in the streets, BBC arts bores -- including our own Michael Ignatieff -- held innumerable discussions on the awful "symbolism" of this assault on "ideas." But it wasn't symbolic at all: they burned the book because nothing else was to hand. If his wife or kid had swung by, they'd have gladly burned them instead. Overseas, they made do with translators and publishers. Rushdie's precious lit. crit. crowd mostly opposed the fatwa on the grounds of artistic freedom rather than as a broader defence of western pluralism. That was a mistake.

In the Fifties and Sixties, Nasserism attempted to import Soviet socialism to the Middle East: it never really took. A generation later, the Ayatollah came up with a better wheeze: export Islamism to a culturally defeatist West. Everything that has become pathetically familiar to us since September 11th was present in the Rushdie affair:

First, the silence of the "moderate Muslims": a few Islamic scholars pointed out that the Ayatollah had no authority to issue the fatwa; they quickly shut up when the consequences of not doing so became apparent.

Second, the squeamishness of the establishment: Rushdie was infuriated when the Archbishop of Canterbury lapsed into root-cause mode. "I well understand the devout Muslims' reaction, wounded by what they hold most dear and would themselves die for," said His Grace. Rushdie replied tersely: "There is only one person around here who is in any danger of dying."

Roy Hattersley, the Labour Party's deputy leader, attempted to split the difference by arguing that, while he of course supported freedom of speech, perhaps "in the interests of race relations" it would be better not to bring out a paperback edition. He was in favour of artistic freedom, but only in hard covers -- and certainly, when it comes to soft spines, Lord Hattersley knows whereof he speaks.

His colleague, Gerald Kaufman, attacked critics of British Muslims: "What I cannot accept is the implication that it is somehow anti-democratic and un-British for Mr. Rushdie's writings to be the object of criticism on religious, as distinct from literary, grounds." Mr. Kaufman said this a few days after large numbers of British Muslims had marched through English cities openly calling for Rushdie to be killed. In the last few months, several readers have e-mailed me with their memories of those marches. One man in Bradford remembers asking a West Yorkshire police officer why the "Muslim community leaders" weren't being arrested for incitement to murder. The officer said they'd been told to play it cool. The cries for blood got more raucous. My correspondent asked his question again. The police officer told him to "F--- off, or I'll arrest you."

And, most important of all, the Rushdie affair should have taught us that there's nothing to negotiate. Mohammed Siddiqui wrote to The Independent from a Yorkshire mosque to endorse the fatwa by citing Sura 5 verses 33-34: "The punishment of those who wage war against God and His Apostle, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land, is execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land. That is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the hereafter. Except for those who repent before they fall into your power. In that case know that God is oft-forgiving, most merciful."

Rushdie seems to have got the wrong end of the stick on this. He suddenly turned up on a Muslim radio station in West London one night and told his interviewer he'd converted to Islam. Marvelous religion, couldn't be happier, praise be to Allah and all that. The Ayatollah said terrific, now you won't suffer such heavy punishment in the hereafter. But we're still gonna kill you.

Some of us drew from the Rushdie affair a different lesson than Mr. Khalfan: As bad as the fatwa was, the inability of the establishment to defend coherently Western values was worse. All those British Muslims who called openly for Rushdie's death are still around, more powerful and with more followers.

Mr. Khalfan is being disingenuous. When was the last time a mob of Jews or Christians or Buddhists tore children from cars and burned them to death? A while back, I saw Terrence McNally's ghastly Broadway jerk-off, Corpus Christi, in which a gay Jesus rhapsodizes about the joys of anal intercourse with Judas. The play was an abomination, and deserves all the abuse discriminating theatre-goers can heap upon it. But oddly enough, I didn't feel an urge to slaughter perfect strangers, to ram a schoolbus, drag the little moppets from it, douse them in gasoline, and get my matchbook out.

When Mr. Khalfan says that irresponsible journalists "risk provoking individuals who cannot control their spiritual emotions and cause the death of innocent people," he's being far more objectionable about Muslims than me, Frum and that Nigerian woman rolled into one; he's being more imperialist than any old-school Colonial Officer: He's saying Muslims are wogs, savages, they know no better, what do you expect? You've gotta be careful around them, the slightest thing could set 'em off. Might be a novel, might be a beauty contest.

Sorry, it's not a good enough answer. If that Nigerian mob are really no more than "pious Muslims," then pious Muslims should be ashamed. Pious Muslims can follow the murder-inciters of Bradford, the suicide-bombers of the West Bank and the depraved killers of northern Nigeria on their descent into barbarism. Or they can wake up and save their religion. Mr. Khalfan's sophistry won't cut it.